Title: Stealing Athena
Author: Karen Essex
Genre: Historical fiction
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Source: Print copy from my own library
First line: Mary hit the floor of the ship’s squalid cabin with a dull thud, jolting her awake and sending a pain so sharp up her spine that Zeus might as well have hurtled a thunder-bolt into her backside.
Stealing Athena by Karen Essex tells the story of two historical women, two women whose names I had never heard before picking up this book, but whose stories are fascinating.
Mary Nesbit convinces her father to allow her to marry Thomas Bruce, the 7th Earl of Elgin, because she desires to marry for love. Her father is not convinced of his worthiness – especially financially – but agrees to the match. Very shortly after marrying, Lord Elgin is named the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, and they set off for Constantinople.
While acting as ambassador to the Turks, Elgin is determined to rescue the famous Parthenon marbles in Athens, Greece, before Napoleon can get his hands on them. The Turks have devastated the Acropolis, sometimes crushing the marbles and using the materials for building homes, other times melting down the lead in the statues for bullets. Elgin is consumed with his plan to bring the marbles back to Britain and establish Britain as a leader in the Fine Arts movement.
According to the novel, Elgin would have failed miserably in his plan without the charms and financial resources of his intelligent wife, Mary. She uses her wits and her money to help her husband achieve his goals, even while his body is deteriorating from what was probably syphilis. (Both he and his doctor told his wife that he suffered from rheumatism.)
Set against this story of the Elgins and their removal of the marbles is the story of Aspasia, lover of Pericles, the man who commissioned the marbles to be crafted during the glory days of Athens.
It was interesting to see how much the fates of women were similar in these two historical eras, even though centuries passed between their lives. Women were not expected to be intelligent, educated, or opinionated. In Mary’s case, her husband loved her charm and beauty when it was benefiting his ambassadorship and plans for the marbles, but was also constantly jealous of the attention other men paid her.
Aspasia was not allowed to marry Pericles, because of a law Pericles himself had passed prohibiting Athenians from marrying foreigners. She lived with Pericles as his wife, but was considered a disrespectful woman who was too opinionated and had too much influence on Pericles.
Both women underwent public trials because of the choices they made in their lives. Neither woman allowed herself to be destroyed by the public and private persecution.
Essex is an extremely talented author. Stealing Athena is well-researched, and it kept my interest all the way through. I was fascinated to learn the stories of these women and how they impacted history in spite of their gender. Anyone who enjoys historical fiction – especially the work of Susan Vreeland and Tracy Chevalier – would enjoy this book.